This verse is read in synagogues this week, as part of the annual re-reading of the Torah. It is part of a weekly portion called Mishpatim – “rules” or “laws” – and comes the week after the Ten Commandments are read in the synagogue, to begin a fleshing out of the broad teachings of the Ten Commandments.
This verse is often cited these days in reference to the way our nation is treating immigrants, refugees, and others who seek a safer, better life here. But I want to suggest another meaning as well:
The word I translate here as ‘sojourners’ is often translated as ‘strangers,’ but that misses an important element of the word. A stranger might just be passing through, and we should certainly not be oppressing such a person; but a sojourner has chosen to leave his or her own land, and come to live in yours. Such a person generally has no political influence, and is vulnerable to being mistreated. Like the widow and the orphan (see Ex. 22:21-22), the sojourner needs special protection. Just look, we are told, at what happened to the Israelites who sojourned in Egypt, after Joseph’s protection at the highest levels was no longer there (Ex. 1:8).
We are all sojourners in this world, and in this society.
The only protection we have from those who would exploit our vulnerability is that we look out for each other; we band together so that our voices may be heard by the potential exploiters. It is not just the immigrant we are protecting, but ourselves, and each other, as well.
That is the beauty and the strength of our work in Together Colorado, and in actions like the Faithful Tuesdays that are coming up soon, in which we join with other like-minded groups to look out for the sojourner – the immigrant, the poor, and ourselves. For, in the end:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me; But if I am only for myself, what am I; And if not now, then when?Mishna Avot 1:14
Rabbi Hillel Katzir
Fort Collins, Northern Colorado Faith Leaders Caucus